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Ahead of 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan attempts to drum up enthusiasm from female fans

Chunichi Shimbun

With the 2019 Rugby World Cup coming to Japan in two years, local governments hosting the event in the Chubu region are eagerly working to promote the sport, especially among women.

They are hoping the epithet ragāru — combining the terms “rugby” and “girl” — will do for the sport what sūjo (female sumo fans) and kāpu joshi (female fans of a professional baseball team Hiroshima Toyo Carp) did for sumo and baseball.

Some municipalities are organizing rugby game-watching tours that explain the rules and offer opportunities for female fans to interact with players.

“It looks painful, but it’s really powerful,” a female fan said in surprise after watching rugby players tackle each other aggressively.

In late September, the Shizuoka Prefectural Government invited 33 women in the prefecture who have never seen a rugby game to watch a Japan Rugby Top League match held at Shizuoka Stadium, one of the venues for the Rugby World Cup.

They were accompanied by Kosuke Endo, 36, a former member of the Japanese national rugby team who used to play for Toyota Verblitz.

He explained the basic rules, including fouls such as the knock-on or throw-forward.

“I’ve always stayed away from rugby because I didn’t understand the rules, but it’s interesting once you learn them. I want to come to watch a game again,” said Terumi Matsushita, 37, an office worker from Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture.

“Word spreads fast among women, and I hope they will come to see the matches repeatedly. We want to see the stadium packed during the World Cup,” said Kenji Takakura, head of the prefectural government’s 2019 World Cup promotion division who planned the group tour.

The Toyota Municipal Government in Aichi Prefecture, which will host the World Cup matches at Toyota Stadium, launched a female-only fan group Litzgirl this spring.

The group is organizing tours to watch Toyota Verblitz games in the Top League and creating pamphlets.

“One of the highlights of the Top League is that fans get a chance to interact closely with the players after the matches. We want them to see their strong muscles,” said a municipal official.

The Fukuoka Prefectural Government, another host of the World Cup matches, set up a “Ragāru Day” last month during the Top League season and held rugby lessons for women.

Japan’s historic victory over the powerful South African team in the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and the popularity of fullback Ayumu Goromaru of Yamaha Jubilo contributed to increasing the percentage of female fans among the total Top League spectators to 40 percent, up from the previous 30 percent.

“But the percentage is still low compared to soccer or baseball,” said a Japan Rugby Football Union official.

The organizers for the 2019 Rugby World Cup aim to attract 2 million people in total, or approximately 40,000 people per game, but the difficulty lies in getting people to go and see matches that don’t involve the Japanese team.

The match dates and venues were announced on Thursday and tickets will go on sale next year.

“The most important thing is to get people interested in rugby first,” said a Toyota municipal official.

The Rugby World Cup will be held in Japan, the first time in Asia, in 2019 between Sept. 20 and Nov. 2.

A total of 48 matches will be held in 12 cities with 20 teams participating.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Oct. 12.